Thursday, January 29, 2009

Author Sketch: Plato (Apology, Crito)


Born c. 428 BCE, Died c. 348 BCE (lived to be approximately 80)
Born and lived mostly in Athens, Greece

Other Things That Happened in Plato’s Lifetime:
The Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta
King Weilieh of Chou became the Thirty-first Sovereign of the Thousand Year Chou dynasty (China)
Egypt regains its sovereignty from the Persian Empire
Many Jews had recently returned to their homeland after the Babylonian exile
The Celts established settlements in the British Isles

Works under study: Apology, Crito

The Great Works reading list kicks off with this pair of works from Plato. There is a staggering amount of historically verifiable information about Plato still known to us today and to write even a condensed version of his biography and historical impact would take up more space than I want to devote to these author introduction pieces. The biographical note from the Great Books edition (presumably written or, at least, editorially directed and approved by Adler himself) divides Plato’s adult life into roughly four periods and both of these are set during the first of them. As a citizen of Athens, Plato’s first decade of adulthood was a socially and politically chaotic one. He ambitiously pursued a career in politics until the execution of Socrates which, along with other political shifts taking place in Athens concurrently, ushered him not only out of politics but away from Athens for over a decade.

As a prolific writer well into his later years, Plato wrote on many topics, producing works of varying length and density on topics that range from fundamental (Apology) to awkwardly tangential (Lysis). One element that characterizes nearly all of Plato’s work is the dialogue form he uses, resulting in a document that reads much like a play with perhaps fewer blocking notes in the margins. What sets the tone of Apology and, to a lesser extent, Crito apart from most of Plato’s other work is the directness with which he addresses the audience to the story he is telling. The Apology is essentially an extended monologue by Socrates as he is on trial; a soliloquy delivered, at once, to the jury that will ultimately sentence him to death, but, also, to the reader who continues to find truth in his defense some twenty-five hundred years later. The effect is dramatic and challenges the reader throughout to remember that these words are not a journalistic account of Socrates’ trial, but a fictionalized distillation of his very essence as captured by a student and a dear friend. Both of these pieces, along with the unassigned third part to this sad story, Phaedo, are filled with the urgent passions of a brilliant young man who had yet to become one of the world’s most venerated and influential writers and thinkers but was well on his way.

Map of Athens, from The Atlas of Ancient and Classical Geography, by Samuel Butler (1907/8).

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

LB: Great Ideas.Org- Mortimer Adler on DVD

From the comments:

"We are a not-for-profit educational organization, founded by Mortimer Adler and we are Encyclopaedia Britannica’s exclusive agent for these programs.

We have recently made an exciting discovery--three years after writing the wonderfully expanded third edition of How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren made a series of thirteen 14-minute videos on the art of reading. The videos were produced by Encyclopaedia Britannica. For reasons unknown, sometime after their original publication, these videos were lost and are now available.

Three hours with Mortimer Adler on one DVD.

For those of you who teach, this is great for the classroom.

I cannot over exaggerate how instructive these programs are--we are so sure that you will agree, if you are not completely satisfied, we will refund your donation."

Please go here to see a clip and learn more:

LB: Old Standards and Just Plain Old

"The question is, Are there some things that oughtn’t to change? If so, what are they? Might they be such things as values, aspirations, standards? Shouldn’t standards remain standards? Otherwise, what is the meaning of “standard”? But over the past four decades or so there has been, in certain quarters, a concerted effort to do away with standards, to tar the very idea of standards as illegitimate and somehow sinful."

More from Robert McHenry at the Brittanica Blog

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Reclaiming Liberal Artistry Pt II

In the first part of this essay my goal was to articulate the grief that I believe we all feel, consciously or unconsciously, while reading those authors who have had the privilege of contributing to what Robert M. Hutchins coins as “The Great Conversation”. This grief exists because, overall, what we can know from this conversation is fragmented and only marginally representative of the whole of Western civilization. This conversation has been held amongst the elite of the West for generations and has, according to Hutchins, faded in its glory since the 19th Century due to two factors: “internal decay” (the specialization of all fields of study) and “external confusion” (attempting to apply experimental science to every disciple). As discussed in the previous essay, these members of the elite are predominately male and white and the sense of loss we experience is rooted in the missing pieces of the conversation. So, what we might have considered the greater and holistic wisdom of Western culture must be practically relegated to a place of limited perspective.

However, there is a message in the silent void that is left by these missing pieces and that message should invigorate those of us living in the West. Recognizing the limitations of the great conversation as represented by the “great works of the mind” does not warrant casting the whole lot of it into the abyss. Quite the opposite, in fact, as it seems to me that ignoring the greater journey of how we came to be here in this time and place, no matter how fragmented and disjointed that journey may appear when most of what is left is words on a page, is tantamount to self sabotage. Hutchins articulates clearly that “these books show the origins of our most serious difficulties.” We must try to learn not only from the extant Western canon but also from its many and varied voices whose silent words carry perhaps a more expansive depth of understanding. How can any of us know where to go from here if we do not know as much as we possibly can about where we have been? To swipe a metaphor from psychology, how can you identify the pain you feel in this moment if you cannot face the shadows of your past? I concur with Hutchins that an even greater grief awaits us if we continue to blithely ignore the liberal arts as they slowly vanish from importance within our systems of education.

Now, above all other times in our past, we must consciously reclaim liberal artistry and rejoice in the fact that we all have an equal opportunity to make an attempt at contributing to the Great Conversation. The lessons of the silent ideas must continue to be sought but more importantly we must maintain as well as enrich this precious dialogue with new words and new ideas that are not as limited in their perspective as were our forbearers’. However, before we can reclaim liberal artistry and contribute to this esteemed conversation, we must first define liberal artistry/the liberal arts and understand why our lives would be negatively affected by their absence. Robert M. Hutchins describes liberal artistry as, quite simply, the vehicle by which the great conversation has been made manifest since the beginning of history. But more pragmatically, he argues that each and every individual utilizes the skills that are informed by the liberal arts every day of their lives.

“The liberal artist learns to read, write, speak, listen, understand and think . . to measure, manipulate matter, quantity, and motion in order to predict, produce and exchange. As we live in the tradition, whether we know it or not, so we are all liberal artists, whether we know it or not.. The liberal arts are not merely indispensable; they are unavoidable. Nobody can decide for himself whether he is going to be a human being. The only question open to him is will he be an ignorant, undeveloped one or one who has sought to reach the highest point he is capable of attaining. The question, in short, is whether he will be a poor liberal artist or a good one. [50]”

One might ask why, if liberal artistry is a daily and “indispensable” activity of us all, then what effort is needed to consciously reclaim it? Hutchins’ diatribe illustrates an integral element of why this effort is needed – do we choose to be proficient liberal artists or inept liberal artists? At this time in our culture a strong argument can be made that mostly we are poor liberal artists and for the greater majority of us this has nothing to do with our abilities to think and write and feel but more to do with the ways in which our education system has failed us. Hutchins spends a good portion of his essay discussing the free, mandatory, universal education system of the West (specifically, in the United States) which seems to him to be a great waste of time.

He refers to our schools as basically holding pens for the young where we “keep the child off the labor market and detain him in comparatively sanitary surroundings until we are ready to have him go to work.” Hutchins believes that it is a horrible misconception to believe that our education systems are adequate to the task of actually educating our young or our adults and that reintegrating the education of the elite, the liberal arts, (if it is good enough for the elite it is good enough for all) into the system is something, that firstly, has never been tried before within the existing compulsory system and which also will give us the necessary tools to accomplish well those things we do every day.

“Education is supposed to have something to do with intelligence. It was because of this connection that it was always assumed that if people were to have political power they would have to have education. They would have to have it if they were to use their power intelligently. This was the basis of the Western commitment to universal, free, compulsory education.” [57]

Two barriers to integrating liberal artistry into our education system are what Hutchins refers to as rampant specialization and a deeply rooted misunderstanding of experimental science and its applications. The first barrier, specialization within all disciplines of human thought, deals with a shift in writing and communication. Specialization does not lend itself easily to having translatable communication outside of said specialization. Hutchins argues that this necessary and needed phenomenon has been hit hardest from a lack of liberal artistry. Liberal arts allow for people to be able to communicate with a wider audience because the proficient liberal artist uses a universal language and is capable of drawing parallels between details and the broader picture. Without the liberal arts as a foundation, we have incredibly smart people who are only writing and communicating to other people who happen to possess the same vocabulary of whatever specialization that they are writing about. This leaves them communicating their knowledge in a void where only others of their ilk have access to it. And, in many disciplines, even attempting to communicate this information in more accessible ways is highly discouraged. It is true that the liberal artists of our past who have contributed to the great conversation were also only writing for each other (the elite), however, it must be clearly stated that these writings are far more accessible to us today than if we were to attempt to read a doctrine of law or medicine or even literary criticism.

The second barrier for our citizens in becoming exceptional liberal artists is the “external confusion” of which Hutchins ascribes as a wide reaching misunderstanding of experimental science. It is important to note that the beginnings of the great conversation and the origins of experimental science are synonymous and have been linked since the dawn of history. However, Hutchins believes that “faith in the experiment as an exclusive method (of learning) is a modern manifestation...[t]hus we are often told that any question that is not answerable by the empirical methods of science is not really answerable...and if they are not answerable by these methods, they are the sort of questions that should never have been asked.” [60] The success and amazing technologies that the experimental method has afforded us cannot be refuted.
However, we have developed a dependence upon this sort of learning that is limiting our perspective. I have confronted this attitude within my own experience. In many ways this experience can be interpreted as a manifestation of both barriers; specialization and the overriding faith that if science cannot cure what ails us then it cannot be cured.

While attending a physical science class, I attempted to begin a dialogue regarding the ethics of scientific education in reference to population control. My question was a simple one and one that was never answered. If science has verifiable methods of proving that, within such and such time, our population will be so great that our species will be harmed and risk possible extinction, then why is it not prudent to aggressively educate people of this verifiable fact so that social changes can begin to follow? I recognize this to be a prickly question but the response that I received was startling. My teacher literally looked at me as if I were insane and began to mockingly explain that what I was asking was a question of ethics that had no place in science. “That is a question for the humanities not for scientists.” I was appalled especially considering the fact that I believe ethics to be of primary importance for all fields but especially within science and medicine. Not to mention the fact that, in essence, this ‘save it for the humanities’ attitude simply illustrated lazy liberal artistry.

A struggle continues to exist between science and what some consider the superstitious notions of our ancestors before science came to illuminate the world and banished these antiquated ideas back into history where they can propagate no further “illusion and sophistry” (Hume). However, the reality is that science cannot answer all of our questions and if we are limited to seeking further understanding of those things that cannot be answered only through scientific experimentation, then we have, ironically, narrowed our opportunities for coping with these very real and pertinent questions yet again.

The absence of liberal artistry in our culture can be seen in many places but it is devastating when we see it within our systems of communication and education. I do not believe that Hutchins is arguing against specialization and experimental science, however, I think it is safe to say that he sees danger lurking behind these trends if they are not influenced by a foundation in good liberal artistry. Hutchins believes that with political power (which those of us in the West enjoy freely) comes a deeper responsibility for educating ourselves. And, that in order for us to be able to contend with the ever changing variables in our lives we must pay heed to the skills we can learn from our ancestors many of whom spilled their own blood that we might be privy to the “Great Conversation”.

“We know that it will be impossible to induce all men to agree on all matters. The most we can hope for is to induce all men to be willing to discuss all matters instead of shooting one another about some matters. A civilization in which all men are compelled to agree is not one in which we would care to live. Under such circumstances one world would be worse than many; for in many worlds there is at least the chance of escape of one to another. The only civilization in which a free man would be willing to live is one that conceives of history as one long conversation leading to clarification and understanding. Such a civilization presupposes communication; it does not require agreement.” [71]

Hutchins’ advocacy of the liberal arts hopes to inspire and prepare us for what it is to come and what has come since the 1950’s one can barely describe. Throughout history every generation of peoples comes to an ardent wish for future generations. For me, and I believe for Hutchins, that ardent wish is for the children and adults in the future to be smarter and better prepared than we have been for all that lay ahead of them. What they will face I cannot imagine but I do know that if they are not given the skills they need their lives will be unnecessarily more difficult. I think the message of the silent voices who were not allowed to contribute to the great conversation is simply this – do not limit yourselves. If we allow liberal artistry to fade from our culture, if we allow the silent voices to continue to remain unheard then we are shackling ourselves with chains of our own making. I guess the only question left remaining is whether you wish to be a good liberal artist or a bad one?


Sunday, January 25, 2009

LB: George Herriman's Fan Site by Craig Yoe

In my mind, there is no art more liberal than narrative art; that is, comics. One of my favorite cartoonists of the 20th century was George Herriman, perhaps best known for his decades-spanning work on Krazy Kat. One of my favorite comics critics, Craig Yoe has put up a website dedicated to all things Herriman and I invite you all to check out its infinite coolness at George

I couldn't resist reposting this excellent Claymation video that perfectly sums up Krazy Kat's appeal if not all of its charm. Enjoy! RV

Friday, January 23, 2009

"The Great Conversation Revisited"- Critique pt 2

Section Three- Why a Second Edition of Great Books of the Western World and How Does it Differ from the First?

For those bracing for a dry discussion about selection methodology, Adler does not disappoint completely. The 20th century receives some kind of Easter morning reprieve as Adler opens the section by invoking Hutchins’ ecumenical observation that, “the Editors don’t think that the Great Conversation came to an end before the 20th century” [32]. The reasoning, he explains, in 1950 when the first edition was assembled, was that the editors lacked the distance to meaningfully separate the good from the great, if only in terms of eventual influence. By the late 1980s, when the second edition was being created, the new editorial team felt enough of a consensus had been reached regarding writings of the early 20th century to extend the series’ contents up through the end of the 1950s.

After four pages of faintly praising the updated material (including a more genuine enthusiasm for improved translations of material from the first edition), Adler cannot resist one last psychobilly freak-out worthy of reproduction.

"What Jose Ortega y Gasset called ‘the barbarism of specialization’…had its first impact on our culture in the years just before WWII. The books published in the first three decades of this century were, for the most part, written by authors who were born and educated in the 19th century and who had not succumbed to the rampant plague of specialization. Only books written after WWII are likely to have been written by authors who were born and educated in the 20th century, and who, because of the academic posts they occupied, were also more susceptible to the spreading infection.

That is another reason why we set the middle years of the 20th century as the cutoff date for the selection of authors and titles to be included in this set. Unless the barbarism of specialization is somehow transcended, it is unlikely that, in philosophy, the natural and social sciences, and history, truly great books will have been written in the closing decades of this century or will be written in the century to follow." [35]

Section Four- Questions and Replies

Adler opens the final section with a short history of the Great Books movement, beginning at Columbia University in the early 1920s and spreading to other reputable institutions like the University of Chicago where both he and Hutchins taught. By the late 1940s, the Great Books movement began its push out of academia and into the community with the establishment of the Great Book Foundation. Given the anti-anti-establishment bent of the Great Books movement, every success was met by vocal critics with concerns about the efficacy of the liberal arts education model as well as charges of elitism and exclusionary tendencies in the reading list itself. Adler separates the series’ critics into two camps, conveniently tied to the two differing editions of the Great Books collection and separated, thus by the four decades between editions.

The first wave, Adler suggests, are critical, in fact, only of misunderstandings about the Great Books series. It is notable that Adler provides his rebuttal to these critics in the form of a speech he delivered in 1948, a full year before the Great Books of the Western World and the accompanying editorial material were published. One might rightly assume that much of what Adler was responding to were criticisms of the curriculae adopted by various schools that reflected the movement’s core values. Before clarifying what is not true to about the Great Books movement, Adler does succinctly outline that core belief, saying that “our claim, then, for the great books program, conceived as a lifetime undertaking, is that it is…certainly the best way for the individual to acquire understanding and wisdom” [37].

With that done, Adler boils the critical reaction (in 1950) against the Great Books program down to five essential misunderstandings that, he asserts, do not represent the critical or ideological position of its advocates.

1. The Great Books are the only books worth reading.

2. Reading and discussion of the Great Books are all that is required in order to give an adult a complete and well-rounded education.

3. Reading the Great Books, absent of other formative influences, will make better human beings and, therefore, better citizens.

4. No knowledge of current events and ideas are necessary in order to function in modern society.

5. Only ideas from antiquity are worthy of careful consideration.

I find this conciliatory tone surprising considering the vehemence with which both Alder and Hutchins attack the modern education system, composed of the same critics they address and with whom they now share only semantic misunderstandings and no differences. Surely those same critics could respond by saying that their criticisms of the “barbarisms of specialization” are founded on misapprehensions of what specialization stands for? Aren’t all arguments over abstractions to some extent, arguments over semantics and definitions?

If Adler is duplicitous in responding to his first wave of critics, he’s completely dismissive of the second, describing the “intense controversy” that accompanied the publication of the second edition in 1988 as “irrelevant” and waged by critics who “appeared to be uninformed about the discussion that had occurred in the first part of the century.” Nonetheless, he includes the heart of the critical response in passing noting that, “objections were raised to the whole idea of a canonical list of books. The narrow parochial interest in Western European culture, excluding the literature of the Far East, was challenged, as well as sexist and racist prejudices that appeared to ignore or dismiss the writings of authors other than white males—European and American” [36].

While the bulk of these concerns go unanswered, Adler does address the lack of material from the Far East, suggesting that the task of delineating and presenting the landmark contributions of that tradition should fall to those better educated in its intricacies. He goes on to say, though, that “with one or two exceptions the great books in these Far Eastern traditions do not enter into the great conversation that occurred in the literature of the West”[37]. It is tempting to extend the logic of that statement into assuming that Adler meant to suggest that the Far Eastern written tradition was silent on the Great Ideas that make up his Syntopicon but, whether that extension represents Adler’s own beliefs falls into the realm of conjecture and not criticism. He may have intended only that the writers of the Mediterranean/European/American tradition wrote in ignorance of what was happening in the literary traditions of China, India, and the Middle East at the same time. But, considered in context with this quote from Hutchins’ essay that Adler included in an earlier section, that willingness to overlook the Eastern tradition begins to look more like willful ignorance than pragmatic deference to Eastern scholars.

"The tradition of the West is embodied in the Great Conversation that began in the dawn of history and that continues to the present day. Whatever the merits of other civilizations in other respects, no civilization is like that of the West in this respect. No other civilization can claim that its defining characteristic is a dialogue of this sort. No dialogue in any other civilizations can compare with that of the West in the number of great works of the mind that have contributed to this dialogue. The goal toward which Western society moves is the Civilization of the Dialogue. The spirit of Western civilization is the spirit of inquiry. Its dominant element is the Logos. Nothing is to remain undiscussed. Everybody is to speak his mind. No proposition is to be left unexamined. The exchange of ideas is held to be the path to the realization of the potentialities of the race…" [Hutchins, 48-9]

Conclusions about “The Great Conversation Revisited”

There is a marked difference in tone between Robert Hutchins’ “The Great Conversation” and this essay from Mortimer Adler and I was continually led to extra-textual speculation to pinpoint the reasons for this disparity other than just differences of style. Hutchins was writing in a time when the full effect of the changes in education had yet to be fully realized and the generational impact fully measured. Much of what he rails against, he opposes in theory, essentially prophesying about the eventual failures of specialization. His defense is more focused on the liberal arts method than on this specific set of works. Adler, in contrast, is writing in an environment where the effects of specialization were well known and, in most cases, embraced with the zeal of democracy or religion, regardless of the mounting evidence that it was, historically, in many ways deficient. His advocacy for the material presented cannot be faulted for its lack of sincerity or academic rigor but his critical defense is too often dismissive and comes to rest on a slippery either/or slope when contrasted with the modern education system.

I've given Dr. Adler quite a rhetorical work-out here because, ultimately, I recognize the wisdom of what he is telling us even as I question the articulation of his vision. That is the heart of the Great Conversation as each new generation reconsiders the wisdom of its ancestors through the prism of new information and new understanding. Whether or not he found my viewpoint hopelessly tainted by the evils of post-post-modernity, I'd like to believe that Dr. Adler would appreciate that some 90 years after the Great Books movement began, it continues to reach out, inspire and educate.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

LB: Capitalism's Self-Inflicted Apocalypse

"Capitalism's Self-Inflicted Apocalypse
by Michael Parenti

After the overthrow of communist governments in Eastern Europe, capitalism was paraded as the indomitable system that brings prosperity and democracy, the system that would prevail unto the end of history.

The present economic crisis, however, has convinced even some prominent free-marketeers that something is gravely amiss. Truth be told, capitalism has yet to come to terms with several historical forces that cause it endless trouble: democracy, prosperity, and capitalism itself, the very entities that capitalist rulers claim to be fostering."

Read more at Common

Sunday, January 18, 2009

"The Great Conversation Revisited"- Critique, Pt. 1

“The Great Conversation Revisited” by R.

There are at least two ways that one may look at the books collected into the Great Books of the Western World series. It is possible (and possibly advisable) to consider them as nothing more than attractive and durable set of books that word nerds will no doubt find a use for in the course of their otherwise empty lives. Believe it or not, I’ve actually sat up in bed at 2 AM before and wondered aloud if I had any Aristophanes lying around. So, if your overall anxiety level goes down knowing that you have access to more Montaigne than you know what to do with, the Great Books are definitely your huckleberry. It is my deep suspicion that fewer sets of the GB have been sold to that purpose than say that of, say, ornate bookshelf filler.

Series associate editor, Mortimer J. Adler acknowledges as much in “The Great Conversation Revisited”, his foreword to the second edition of the Great Books collection, but he also goes a great deal further to defend the loftier ideals that went into its compilation. While it may seem odd to begin an exploration of the Great Books and the Conversation they represent with an essay written in response to series’ editor Robert Hutchins’ original defense of the Western canon, “The Great Conversation”, there are pragmatic reasons to do just that. First, while Adler did not pioneer the movement to return the classics to the classroom, it was clearly his initiative that continued to raise the bar on that effort and, in many cases, move it past pedagogical theory into actual practice. Hutchins’ essay, though sweeping in its scope and intensity, spends more time defending the wisdom in obtaining a liberal arts education than it does defending this selection of writing as its representative. Adler, in contrast, is a wonder of evangelistic brevity, meticulous in laying out clearly defined terms for his arguments and then defending them with evidence.

Section One- The Great Books and the Great Ideas

Adler begins his long and winding argument with an analogy, positing that just as there are “goods” (or necessities) of the body (listing food, drink, sleep, clothing, and shelter among their number), so also does the mind require “goods” of its own; information, knowledge, understanding and wisdom. While information and knowledge are widely seen as doubling with each passing moment, few, Adler argues, would say that the world is suffering from an overabundance of wisdom and understanding. Just as removing any one of the goods of the body negates to some extent the efficiency of the others (ie sleeping nude on the ground in the middle of the tundra), so does information/knowledge likewise suffer from a lack of wisdom and understanding as a complement. Put simply, Mortimer Adler believes (and wants you to believe) that the wisdom and understanding in Western culture (in essence, the Great Conversation) had traditionally been and could again be transmitted by the writings contained in this collection.

Before launching into a full-frontal defense of that idea, he lists the criteria that went into selecting the works included and a couple more that were necessarily not included in the process.
These criteria warrant a moment’s consideration as they can as easily serve as at least some of the criteria by which the reader may consider an individual work’s inclusion into the collection as a whole. Adler lists Contemporary Significance as his first criteria, insisting that it must address the concerns common to humanity across the millennia as opposed to the specific concerns of its time. Second, the work must be of adequate profundity and sophistication to warrant not only being read, but being read a number of times in order to extract the fullness of meaning. Last, Great Works must be of extensive relevance to the Great Conversation, whether in addressing several of its core themes or in just a few but to a depth that transforms it into an unforgettable landmark on any journey concerned with understanding a given issue.

Equal consideration should also be given to Adler’s non-criteria as partial clues to the identity of the barbarians he presumes to be massing at the gates of civilization. The influence of a particular work on culture was not considered out of context of its relevance to the Great Conversation. This is one of Adler’s safety hatches for those who would point to a mass of literature from every place in the world that was not Europe or America as worthy of equal consideration. While he acknowledges the possibility that writings from the Far East (and by logical extension, the Near East, the Middle East, Africa, and South America) may be of equal literary merit, he punts the task of indexing exactly how those traditions might relate to the Western canon down the field to future scholars in search of an emerging global human culture. His second non-criteria is that no work is included by virtue of the truth that it supposedly contains. In this sense, he offers the Great Books not as a repository of truth but as a record of the quest to uncover it, acknowledging that “no human work rises to the perfection of being devoid of logical flaws.”

Section Two- The Great Conversation

Adler dedicates the second section of his essay to what Hutchins identifies as the defining characteristic of Western culture, the Great Conversation, and uses the opportunity to articulate and defend the aims of the collection .He presents three editorial additions to the Great Books of the Western World collection as evidence of the Great Conversation’s existence and unique importance in world culture. First, the Syntopicon illustrates that canonical writers are compelled to address the Great Ideas whether by virtue of their common membership in the human race (as Adler would suggest) or participation in a more limited, specifically Western experience. Secondly, he points to the Author-to-Author index as a more visually oriented proof of the influence of tradition that is visible from the earliest Greek dramatic poets up through the 20th century. Finally, the Author-to-Idea index supports Adler’s assertion that “most of the great authors, with the possible exception of a few mathematicians and natural scientists have made significant contribution to the Great Conversation in relation to a large number of great ideas” [30]. I’ll grant that all three features, especially the Syntopicon which represents an enormous amount of information relative to the other two touted, do add to one’s enjoyment of the work. They strike me, however, as less of a proof of an objective phenomenon (ie the Great Conversation) and more the kind of labor of love that dwelling on a particular idea in a number of ways (the liberal arts ideal) is likely to produce.

If the first half of this section is overly pragmatic in its exploration of these editorial contribution, Adler turns didactic in the second. His purpose is two-fold; one, overt and one, implicit. While enunciating the difficulties of folding the 20th century writing into the easy framework otherwise provided by history, Adler cannot resist seizing the opportunity to excoriate 20th century values as intrinsically responsible for this aberrant disjunction with the past. Adler uses his discussion of the Author-to-Idea index to further an argument that the 20th century represents, “a clear break between this century and the twenty-five centuries that precede it in the tradition of Western civilization” [31]. Though he concedes that the 20th century writers, “address themselves to the same set of Great Ideas to which their predecessors contribute,” Adler seems at once irritated and self-impressed that the Syntopicon had to be extensively re-redited to allow for the novelty of 20th century thought and writing. He goes on to describe the timbre of these revisions as necessitated by “the disagreements of the 20th century authors to their predecessors or their departure from the ground covered in early centuries [as well as] the breaking of new ground” [31]. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

This digression (mitigated in the Great Conversation collection by Clifton Fadiman’s “The Contributions of the 20th Century” that is viciously sandwiched in between Adler and Hutchin’s dueling screeds against modernity) is noteworthy for reasons fundamental to a full appreciation of Adler’s purpose. The urgency with which both Adler and Hutchins attack the perceived inadequacies of the 20th century is the organizing impulse behind the Great Books program. They find its education ill-considered; its trend towards hyper-specialization intellectually dangerous and its writing, by and large, inadequate to the legacy it bears as its influence. The comprehensive ideal set by the publication of the Great Books of the Western World series, however, insists that its editors swallow the bitter pill of modernity to prevent charges of ethno- and phallocentrism from settling like a dark cloud over their supposedly definitive presentation of the most important writings in the Western tradition. It is an irreconcilable tension that surfaces over and over again throughout the Great Conversation.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Reclaiming Liberal Artistry - Part I

Reclaiming Liberal Artistry
Part I

For Christmas in 2007, my Father gifted Rob and I with a complete set of The Great Books of the Western World series which, as the title implies, comprises a representational selection of the greatest thinkers that Western culture has yet to manifest. Of course, the works of our species’ more recent creators are only marginally represented as we have not yet had time to weigh their contributions against those of our Western ancestors and those of our Eastern and Indigenous relatives are absent completely.

Our process of reading these “Great Books” was commenced by candlelight and glowing fireplace during an horrific ice storm that devastated power lines and hundred year old trees indiscriminately. After each selection, we engaged in an oral discourse of the writings covering a broad range of considerations and conclusions. It was a good and learned situation which went smoothly for a period of time but seemed to deconstruct itself into oblivion when I was defeated by Augustine and Rob by Rabelais. Also during this time, there began a currently shared urge (inspired by Rob) to compile our thoughts in writing as a means of gaining a more tangible foothold in our heritage. We both received our higher learning degrees from the only liberal arts university in the state of Oklahoma where we embraced this method of learning. We have been avid readers our whole lives and as a result have become solid writers in the process of indulging in our favorite past time.

The reasons behind this need for a more secure footing are that we were and still are witnessing Western culture’s slow and painful degradation. Or, in the words of Robert H. Hutchins, "the headlong plunge into the abyss" from which our civilization may not return. This is not a new phenomenon; we both understand this to be truth, but rather a generational experience that in many ways each of the authors of the “Great Books” are attempting to explain. For me, this realization did not make it easier to resume our readings of the series. I have been harboring misgivings specifically about revisiting the material that runs counter to my personal ideas of truth and, especially, equality among “men”. I recognize the fallacious elements of actively engaging this perspective but I also cannot deny its existence.

The year 2009 finds us starting anew and we will be responding to each of these authors using the written form. I find myself excited but also filled with trepidation as we begin this endeavor. I am looking forward to recreating within myself the discipline of writing which requires regular practice and dedication; reclaiming my own liberal artistry. I want to renew and strengthen a lifelong habit. It is an emerging of who I truly see myself to be which is, at heart, a word-nerd and/or an artist of the pen. Poetry has been my chosen form of creative expression since becoming a liberal artist. I find metaphor and the art of twisting language to be most enjoyable though I have also written some prose. But, the main point beyond all of this is that I WANT to write and writing takes practice, diligence as well as affording the reader/writer another method of understanding whatever they may be reading.

However, since reading Leonard Shlain’s Alphabet vs. the Goddess – The Conflict Between Word and Image, I have found myself equally distressed about the written word and the consequences that we have seen throughout our history from its use. Shlain’s observations of Western civilization are that a neurosis manifested from literacy which caused left brain dominance and thus a sort of war upon the right brain that inspired those qualities that it informs to be suppressed, repressed and demonized: images, non-linear thought and most universally, the feminine.

“There exists ample evidence that any society acquiring the written word experiences explosive changes. For the most part, these changes can be characterized as progress. But one pernicious effect of literacy has gone largely unnoticed: writing subliminally fosters a patriarchal outlook. Writing of any kind, but especially its alphabetic form, diminishes feminine values and with them, women’s power in the culture. . For now, I propose that a holistic, simultaneous, synthetic, and concrete view of the world are the essential characteristics of a feminine outlook; linear, sequential, reductionist, and abstract thinking defines the masculine.” (Shlain 1998)

Shlain argues that every person possesses these “opposite perception modes” in equal measure but that rampant alphabetic literacy void of right brain stimulus has had obvious and violent ramifications within the evolution of our culture. These arguments ring of truth and as a result I continue to endure volatile emotions when I think of immersing myself in the words of those authors whom I remember from my previous liberal arts education to be representative of the more devastating consequences that this neurosis of written language has inflicted.

This is a deeply rooted emotional reaction with which I am attempting to contend. This reaction is beautifully irrational and wholly right-brained, however, it is real and must be given its proper due and respect. I’ve spent a good portion of the years since receiving my bachelor’s degree on a journey of exploration where I have learned much of what can be known of Goddess-based ideas and cultures influenced by the Divine Feminine prior to the solitary Sun God’s “Word” dismantling of this ancient wisdom piece by piece with each stoke of His followers’ pens. I continue to find this occurrence unsettling and without resolution. Part of what my journey has thus far revealed to me is that each and every one of us is missing at least half (probably more) of what we could call the “Great Wisdom” of our civilization. For that reason, it seems to me that we are a people who are struggling to lay claim to an already fractured and broken culture.

Please understand the nuance of wording between the “Great Books” and what I am terming the “Great Wisdom” of Western concepts and ideas. These "Great Books" are only a small part of a greater tapestry of knowledge and wisdom. And the deepest irony is, of course, that these books reveal to us in many ways a further degradation of an already disjointed entity. This reality makes it difficult to avoid emotional reactions to the words that remain no matter how valuable and pertinent these works are for all of us today.

However, Shlain also helped me recognize that what has been true in our past is not equally true in our current time. This continued evolution of Western thought results mostly because of frenzied changes in the ever present influences of our culture, especially in regards to information technology. In our time, we have equalized our brain stimulus by integrating images and the word into our day to day lives and we are beginning to see the balance between the genders reach a more equitable place. However, there are now different problems on our horizon. We find ourselves living in a time where we are each awarded “political power and leisure time” by our democratic and, in some ways more balanced society and yet, the education of our people is suffering from a seemingly mandatory anorexia which is creating perhaps the greatest danger to our species yet (Hutchins, 1952).

Robert M. Hutchins takes up this worrisome manifestation in inspiring ways in “The Great Conversation” which is the introductory essay for the first edition of The Great Books of the Western World. A discussion of Hutchins’ observations will continue in Part II of “Reclaiming Liberal Artistry”.


Sunday, January 11, 2009

LB: What's a Liberal Arts Education Good For?

by Michael Roth from the Huffington Post

Over the next few months, in homes across America, seventeen and eighteen-year-olds will be conferring with one another and with their parents about a life changing decision: What college to go to! After months of research, visits, and advice from "experts," these young men and women must now decide: Where will I be happy? Where will I make friends? Where will I get an education I can afford now, and an education that will remain valuable for years after graduation?

In this same time period, our government officials will be deciding where an investment in America's economic infrastructure will do the most good. Commentators from different political perspectives have often noted that one of the great advantages of America is its peerless higher education system. Although other sectors have diminished international roles, higher education in this country continues to inspire admiration around the globe. When politicians talk about this, they often emphasize the research output of large universities, but the focus should also be on American undergraduate liberal arts education. Liberal arts in the USA provide not only a pipeline of talented and prepared students to the great graduate schools, but also a model for life-long learning that other countries are beginning to emulate.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Linkblogging: 14% of US Adults Can't Read

"About 14 percent of U.S. adults won't be reading this article. Well, okay, most people won't read it, given all the words that are published these days to help us understand and navigate the increasingly complex world.

But about 1 in 7 can't read it. They're illiterate."

And Now For Something We Hope You'll Really Like...

There’s really no good way to tell your friends that you’ve decided to start a ten year reading program and, what’s worse, that you both intend to write about the experience online but here we all are. Hi, we’re Rob and Kendra and we’re word nerds; so much so, that once gifted a set of sixty books purporting to represent the Western tradition of writing as well as any sixty-volume set might be able, that we couldn’t resist the almost ludicrous task of reading and writing about them.

Kendra and I both graduated from the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma (USAO for the initiated), the state’s only publically funded liberal arts university. I think it’s safe to say that neither of us chose USAO specifically because of its liberal arts education style or could have articulated exactly what a liberal art might look like. If pressed, I might have tried to identify the Humanities as the liberal arts; liberal in the sense that they would really only prepare you to teach or write instead of doing something eventually profitable like accounting or working with computers. The best I could tell coming in, the biggest difference between USAO and other schools I had looked at was the emphasis that was placed on the interdisciplinary core (IDS) curriculum, required of every student regardless of their field of study. While every school had its own general education core requirements, USAO placed a lot of focus on the format of these classes; team taught by two professors from complementing disciplines with the focus progressively weighted towards expository writing as the means of assessing the our academic progress.
Independently determined to avoid the pitfalls of assured success, Kendra and I both chose English as our course of study without realizing the amazing leg up it would give us in the IDS core. In both the IDS core and classes in our major, we were essentially asked to read a metric butt ton of material and then write in response to it. By the time we finished, neither of us was particularly interested in joining the ranks of academia but we were decent writers, if by virtue of nothing but practice. Though, between us, we have held a wide range of jobs (musician, zookeeper/zoo management, retail and office management, archeology, comics writer, substitute teacher), that skill of being able to collect data, analyze and then synthesize it into a written response has benefited us at every turn.

When we received the Great Books of the Western World as a Christmas present in 2007 from Kendra’s father, it sparked something off inside that led us to reexamine our educational experiences from a new vantage point with a better appreciation for its value relative to other, equally capricious, educational decisions we could have made. Would knowing then what we know now have improved upon the education we received? The beauty of the liberal arts education is in its process, exposing students to the great writers while creating the necessity for that student to develop meaningful writing habits in response to the coursework.

Urged onward by a crushing ice storm that cut power to our house for five days, we began the reading program immediately, advancing in fits and spurts relative to the difficulty of the material assigned.

We stayed “on the wagon” for about six months before being defeated by Augustine and Rabelais respectively. For me, the reading without the response just didn’t have the same appeal and, despite out best efforts to discuss together what we had read, we found it difficult to keep those discussions organized in a way that ensured that we got to the essence of the work in question.

And so that is how we ended here, starting up a blog as the vehicle for writing in response to reading down the Ten Year Reading List for the Great Books of the Western World. The first draft of this entry was a really gloomy reading of the world we live in and offered this kind of continuing liberal arts education as an antidote for what ails us. Upon reflection, I felt kind of stupid suggesting reading better books and writing about them is any kind of curative against real world ills like poverty, disease, famine or global warming. If the house is burning down, by all means, grab a bucket of water before you grab a book about the history of fire fighting.
Equally, as we are confronted by a daunting set of challenges, some very old and some very new, we believe that now is not the time to jettison our understanding and appreciation of two and half millennia of writing that just might provide some of the answers we desperately need.